IPT Book Reviews


Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern Witch Hunt  Positive Review Positive Review Positive Review

Authors: Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker
Publisher: BasicBooks, 1995

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This 317-page book, by a well-known journalist and criminal defense attorney, traces the origins and development of the current child abuse hysteria. In the 1980s, social workers, therapists, physicians, and prosecutors convinced the public that a conspiracy of child molesters was infiltrating day care centers and abusing children in bizarre, satanic rituals. Many of the highly-publicized cases, such as Country Walk, Scott County, Kelly Michaels, and McMartin, are described and the authors show how child protection and the federal government set the stage for the panic and how religious fundamentalists and feminists joined together to promote it. The premise of the book is that these cases were manufactured by adults through coercive interviewing techniques, faulty medical diagnoses, and legal manipulations. The book, which is dedicated to the many men and women (over 50 are named) who are still incarcerated, is carefully documented and contains a useful index.

In the introduction and acknowledgements, the authors acknowledge a long list of persons who spoke to them, helped them gather documents, and provided information. But most of this country's prominent child protectionists, including leaders of the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children and Believe the Children did not respond to their letters and calls or refused to talk to them. Nathan and Snedeker therefore reconstructed the attitudes and behavior of these persons through their conference speeches and papers, depositions and trial testimony, and notes, interview tapes, and other documents that became part of the trial record. Through this, they expose the lack of a scientific basis and the questionable methods used by those who participated in the witch hunt.

The authors observe that people were so influenced by the feminist and pro-child pretensions of the ritual abuse claims that these claims went largely unchallenged. The few pioneer ritual abuse skeptics who came forward include authors Mary Pride and Paul and Shirley Eberle, VOCAL, journalists Dorothy Rabinowitz and Bob Williams (Debbie Nathan also should also be included here), and mental health experts Ralph Underwager, Lee Coleman, and Richard Gardner. The authors note that, although these experts' opinions were readily available during the 1980s, even in the media it was hard to find a reporter willing to look critically at ritual abuse claims. When they began the book in the early 1990s, they wondered if they could make a dent in the acceptance of these claims. But, by the time the book was being finished, the tide had turned dramatically.

The chapter on medical evidence is particularly interesting; the authors discuss physicians who examined young children's anuses and vaginas and then testified that they had found hard evidence of sexual abuse. Such testimony provided the "mantle of objectivity" that helped sway uncertain jurors. Later, scientific research falsified this testimony when these purported "signs" of abuse were found as often in nonabused children as in abuse victims. The authors describe a recent conference where the difficulty of diagnosing abuse through physical signs was now acknowledged, along with chuckling and good-natured joking, but there was no discussion of what to do about defendants who may have been convicted years before on the basis of mistaken testimony about physical signs of sexual abuse.

This is a powerful book which is highly recommended.

Reviewed by LeRoy G. Schultz, Emeritus Professor of Social Work, West Virginia University.

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